Three Advent Stories: While Shepherds Watched


Author: Andrew Wileman

This carol reflects one of the most astonishing encounters of the Christmas story.

On one level it is that familiar and well-loved story. Shepherds were in the fields among smelly and not-so-bright sheep. They had no power or influence. They had nothing to bring the baby King. However, the glory and the random beauty of the Christmas story is that God chooses the lowest members of society to entrust the greatest truth of all ages.

Peering in the darkness—suddenly—an angel stands before them, and the glory of the Lord surrounds them with blazing light. Seized with alarm, the shepherds are struck with fear.

The angel reassures them, “Don’t be afraid! I bring you good news that will bring great joy to all people. The Saviour—yes, the Messiah, the Lord—has been born today in Bethlehem, the city of David! And you will recognize him by this sign: You will find a baby wrapped snugly in strips of cloth, lying in a manger” (Luke 2:10-12 NLT).

God’s word tells us that the shepherds were terrified by the appearance of the angel and that the people of Bethlehem were amazed by the tales they later told. You can easily imagine why. Of all the things people expected that morning, Shepherds singing praises and announcing the coming of the Messiah was probably not high on the list.

After they had seen the baby, they “spread the word” concerning what they knew. They weren’t like so many of us in our sophisticated world, worried about what others thought of them. They didn’t overthink the situation and talk themselves out of telling the news. They were exuberant, overflowing with joy and probably still reflected a bit of the glory of being with Jesus.

I love the fact that God is His infinite wisdom chose just the right group of people to entrust the greatest news of eternity. Those humble men took the Good News of Jesus, and did just what God wanted them to do – told others, and their lives were never the same.

‘While Shepherds Watched’ was written by Nahum Tate. Nahum was born in Dublin, Ireland and was the son of a Priest. He moved to England and became an accomplished poet and was appointed as the national Poet Laureate of England by King William III. He wrote not only as a poet but as a playwright, and many of his works were produced onstage. Nahum is buried in St Paul’s Cathedral. Sadly, his life didn’t finish well as he died as an alcoholic, and in poverty.

However, in 1700, Nicholas Brady who was an Anglican Vicar and part-time poet collaborated with Nahum on a new edition of hymns, some of which focused on the birth of Jesus. Initially, their revisions met with widespread resistance, but gradually the hymns gained acceptance.

This ‘new’ edition of hymns included a new carol, “While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks.” Based on Luke 2:8 Their message was simple, and the story was told in a memorable way:

“While shepherds watched their flocks by night,

all seated on the ground,

the angel of the Lord came down,

and glory shone around.”

The shepherds were not religiously polished scribes, they were not socially connected men of influence, they were not wealthy merchants, and unlike the wise men they did not come with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. These ‘night shift’ workers lived under the stars with only the clothes on their backs, a staff to guide the sheep, and a rod for protection. What God wanted most is the one thing they had to offer ‘to tell others what they had seen’?

I’m challenged by that, and I share that challenge with you today. This Christmas season, will you share your story? Someone needs to hear what Jesus has done for you.

Someone, everyone, needs to know Jesus was born for them, too.


What is your favourite Christmas Carol?
Do you find it easier to ‘tell others’ about Jesus and share your faith at Christmas time?
Who are the ‘shepherds’ in your communities today, who need to know the love of Jesus?


As well as being a Faith in Later Life Trustee, Andrew Wileman is the Assistant Director for Older People’s Services at The Salvation Army. This blog is part of Three Advent Stories shared with Faith in later Life from Andrew’s book ‘Songs of the Faith‘. 

Read the other stories here:

Three Advent Stories: O Holy Night
Three Advent Stories: Good King Wenceslas.